Competitors pressure front-runner Burton -- with compliments
Friday, October 20, 2006
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jeff Burton couldn't do anything right for five long seasons. Now he can't do anything wrong.
Burton has overcome late-race problems the past two weeks to widen his lead in the Chase for the Nextel Cup standings, leading his rivals to wonder openly if the championship is his to lose.
"You can't break him. He's just there every week doing a great job," Dale Earnhardt Jr. lamented.
"If he keeps running great races, you're not going to be able to catch him," Kasey Kahne added. "That's a really good team, and they're doing an awesome job."
So are these guys ready to hand over the championship? Or are these just mind games?
If that's the goal, Burton said it isn't working.
"I just don't understand how somebody saying something good about you can be a head game," he said. "I just don't get into that. I take it as a huge compliment when somebody says something good about me or our race team. And that's all I take it as, as a compliment."
Burton is too smart and too savvy to take the bait. But the burden clearly is on him from here on out. At the midway point of the Chase, he holds a 45-point lead over Matt Kenseth.
The competition knows it should be much bigger. A flight tire dropped him from fifth to 27th at Talladega.
At Charlotte last Saturday, Burton fell a lap down when he stalled his Chevrolet on pit road before finishing third.
Despite every challenge thrown his way, he's still able to hold down his spot on top of the leaderboard heading into Sunday's Subway 500 at Martinsville, Va.
Kenseth thinks it's because Burton doesn't have any pressure on him. No one predicted the No. 31 team would win this title.
"One of the things that he's really got going for him is that everybody has left him alone," Kenseth said. "He's just kind of doing his own thing and nobody is taking him serious. When the Chase began, he wasn't a favorite to win it. I never heard people picking him to win 10 weeks ago, and that's an advantage.
"There's not a lot of high expectations on him. He's really sneaking up on the deal."